Brian Monteith: Tories the only real by-election losers

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Scottish Parliament by-election upsets are rare; of the seven held in the last 14 years the only one resulting in a change of party was when the Tories won Ayr in March 2000.

It came as no surprise, therefore, that the SNP’s Mark McDonald should hold Aberdeen Donside with a reduced majority on a smaller turnout.

There are, nevertheless, some straws in the wind from the result that bookies and political analysts alike will be considering as they seek to anticipate next year’s independence referendum and the subsequent parliamentary elections that will follow.

Before considering how the votes were cast, it has to be said that it is a sorry day when a turnout of only 39 per cent of the electorate is seen as acceptable by some commentators. Compared with the 49 per cent turnout in the parliamentary election of 2011 it might be thought of as relatively good – for me it is a damning indictment of today’s politicians and their failure to engage with the public.

There were few people that genuinely thought that Labour would win back the Donside seat that they lost to the late Brian Adam ten years ago in 2003 when it was Aberdeen North. The important question was how big would the SNP majority remain?

We now know Labour is making an impact – gaining a 9.2 per cent swing from the SNP, whose vote share fell by 13 per cent – a performance that if repeated would see many SNP seats returning to Labour – including at least three the Nationalists hold here.

Only it’s not that simple, for by-election results do not easily translate into general election performances. There is no room for complacency on Labour’s side, and if the TV performances are anything to go by they need to elevate people like Kezia Dugdale and give media training to Anas Sarwar so the party messengers are less objectionably partisan, show more humility and don’t contradict themselves.

Despite the predictable win, the SNP victor, Mark McDonald, showed leadership potential in resigning (as required by the law) as a list member of Parliament so that he was able to contest the individual constituency and will benefit from the kudos that comes from taking the brave(heart) pills.

Attempts by all of the parties to try and measure the voters’ intentions in the referendum through this result are an exercise in futility, for adding up the votes of the nationalist and unionist parties cannot provide any reliable prediction. While nationalists will be disappointed they did not secure more than half of those voting, unionists should be worried the total votes of nationalist parties was 44 per cent – while the number of electors that didn’t vote could swing it either way.

There has been a great deal of interest in how UKIP would perform, partly because of its impressive results in two Westminster by-elections earlier in the year, when it polled 27.8 per cent in Eastleigh and 24.2 per cent in South Shields, and partly because of the hostile reception its leader Nigel Farage received from a baying mob in Edinburgh. Their opponents needn’t have worried as it only polled 4.8 per cent, losing its deposit, and thus failing to gain the respectability it craves. But looking at the figures more closely UKIP still has cause to be heartened.

Polling only 1128 votes through an Edinburgh resident in an Aberdeen constituency, UKIP attracted practically three times as much support as the local Green candidate. It should be remembered that the Greens have councillors and MSPs elected across Scotland through the proportional voting system. If UKIP can sustain its Scottish presence, and even develop it by finding more authentic local voices, then there is a strong possibility that it could find itself having candidates elected thanks to the proportional system.

Secondly, UKIP’s participation undoubtedly ate into the Tory vote, allowing the Lib Dems to leap-frog over them from fourth to third place. This was a major embarrassment for the Conservatives and points to further humiliation to come next year when we have the European elections. No-one can deny UKIP the right to a hearing in that election as it seeks to become Britain’s largest party in Brussels – having already gained more MEPs than Labour in 2007.

The prospect that it will gain a Scottish MEP at the expense of the Conservatives is now very real. This could be a mortal blow to Ruth Davidson’s leadership, but without her becoming audibly more eurosceptic than David Cameron, I fail to see how she can prevent it.

For once the Lib Dems could celebrate; their vote went up, their share went up and they moved a rung up the pecking order. Small beer, maybe, but many pints were no doubt sunk last night in what has otherwise been a desperate year so far.